With the first test squad announcement, the main focus was heavily aimed at head coach Warren Gatland’s key calls.
Figurehead players such as George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton were ‘headlined’ to be chosen by the Kiwi-born coach, despite their performances varying in quality to their positional counterparts. Last Word on Rugby analyze the decisions and their impact teams chances against New Zealand on Saturday.
Gatland’s Key Calls
Perhaps the biggest of Gatland’s key calls, was to drop George North from the squad. North hadn’t shown fine form down under. And with wingers Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Elliott Daly proving themselves worthy, the dropping of North was merely inevitable.
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Peter O’Mahoney gets his second start as Lions captain, this time at seven. With usual Gatland favourite and ex Wales and Lions skipper Sam Warburton only pushing out onto the bench. Sean O’Brien, the other contender for the seven shirt starts at six ahead of Irish counterpart CJ Stander.
Leigh Halfpenny has felt the ‘grinding of the axe’ as he drops to the bench below Liam Williams, who bizarrely Gatland see’s as a wing for Wales. This comes with the announcement that Daly would start on the wing–Daly being the other form player who could go to full back. With the Englishman selected on the wing, it opened the window for Williams who will be sure to bring a strong attacking threat from all over the park.
Key Calls – In the Loose
The front three was widely decided amongst fans as being Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadgh Furlong; pre-announcement. This was indeed the front three called upon by Gatland.
The second row held some of the most heated debates on who should start – with Scotland fans, and rugby fans left wondering still as to why Jonny Gray wasn’t with the squad – but that left George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje as the main contenders.
Kruis, with his evident line-out presence, was sealed. It was Itoje then who sadly missed out, with Alun Wyn Jones claiming the fifth front five shirt. Gatland’s key calls coming into play heavily again, but one must assume that Itoje placed on the bench was based upon him being a better ‘impact substitute’ and much more versatile than Jones.
Key Calls – Back Row Headache
With Billy Vunipola pulling out with injury pre-tour, Talaupe Faletau was always going to start at number eight unless something drastic happened between then and the first test. It was whether Gatland was going to play two sevens or go for a blindside and open side partnership.
Stander was arguably the best six in the world heading into the tour, but stumbled slightly with his form, resulting in Gatland choosing to go with two opensides in O’Mahoney and O’Brien.
Lions Go Back to Basics
Rugby is a simple game, all you have to do is keep possession and do something useful with it. That’s why Gatland has gone ‘back to basics’ on his backline selection, and has decided to opt with running, agile players.
Gatland typically likes a solid powerhouse runner at twelve, just like Jamie Roberts for Wales. Ben Te’o fills this role to a tee, except he adds such a threat that when he lined up in the Moari game, he made 70 metres. Teo looked dangerous every time he had ball in hand. Like a certain opponent [SBW] looking for an offload, key to keeping the ball alive, a lot of the times.
Jonathon Davies, or Foxy as he is affectionately known as to loyal fans, has been no doubt the most dangerous outside centre on the planet. With an all round defensive and offensive game, proven by an excellence performance against the Moari All Blacks. Many of his bolting runs made even Kiwi fans applaud.
Key Calls – Nine-Ten Combination
The half backs were looked upon with reasonable ease, by most who once seeing Te’o’s form at inside centre, moved Owen Farrell to fly half. To compliment, he is accompanied by Irish scrum half Conor Murray.
These two will no doubt be working in harmony and should get plenty of accurate, fast ball out to a set of exciting backs chosen by Gatland’s key calls. In the short time that the two men have been on the park together, they seem like a logical pair. Jonny Sexton misses out, but Farrell has offered more in each outing. As has Connor–his selection was fully predicted.
Key Calls – The Bench
The bench hasn’t yielded too many surprises, but relatively new to international rugby is prop Kyle Sinckler. A young man who must be overjoyed to see his name on the bench, as the replacement tighthead. The three men chosen is definitely a group that are mobile and designed to come on and have immediate effect. Gatland will hope that a ‘possibly tiring’ New Zealand pack can be challenged in the tight.
Itoje and Warburton stack up well to cover the remainder of the forwards replacements. The English flanker/lock can jump, tackle and run. The Welsh skipper is smart and can slip-in to the role asked to perform. 20-25 minutes, each will make their presence felt.
The backs are limited on the bench to three places only, taken by Sexton and Wales duo Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny. The flyhalf can fill numbers 10 or 12, and will offer his experience. Halfpenny will be keen to continue the fine form he displayed in Rotorua.
British and Irish Lions Target Set Piece and Physical Presence
Clearly Gatland’s key calls have resulted in a ‘forwards packed bench’. Highlighting his targeting of set piece play and a strong physical presence around Eden Park. However, but the players coming off the bench do look more defensive than those starting.
Going against Gatland’s usual plan of sit back, defend and counter. The starting XV are there to go out-and-attack…get tries! Then the bench will come on, help tire the All Blacks, and hold out any favourable lead, in a strong defensive end to the game.
The squad is set to test the All Blacks, and despite the home team not losing at Eden Park since 1994 against France, the visitors will be optimistic about their chances. So too will fans, who have waited 24 years for a win over New Zealand.
New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – First Test. Eden Park, Auckland. 7:35pm (NZT)
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